Back in 2017, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Jimmy Webb composition “Wichita Lineman.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.
JANUARY–STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, FEATURING GLEN CAMPBELL
I loved the way that last year’s batch of covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man” turned out, but I couldn’t really imagine dragging the series on indefinitely, focused on just that song. (I was already starting to have trouble scraping together additional interesting cover versions each month.) So I figured why not just pivot to a new song for the new year. And after my boyfriend sat down with his guitar to start learning “Wichita Lineman” for an event at his school, I knew I’d found the perfect next song.
Because–it is indeed a perfect song. Perfectly, perfectly composed by the great Jimmy Webb and given its highest expression by the incomparable Glen Campbell. (I sort of ruefully chuckled after the clock ticked over to 2017 that, despite his Alzheimer’s, at least the celebrity deathsweep of 2016 left Glen Campbell behind.) His definitive version from his 1968 album of the same name is one of a handful of songs that will reliably bring me to tears nearly any time I hear it. So, let’s just get that out of the way now–no one will ever surpass it. Which, I think, is why doing a covers series around this song might be kind of fun. Like, if you know you’ll never record a better version than the one that already exists, what do you do with it? Let’s find out.
That being said, I’m going to cheat a little bit on this first one.
Yes, it’s Glen Campbell on vocals and his signature baritone guitar. But, he’s being backed by the Stone Temple Pilots (sans Scott Weiland). Just like I loved White Denim for having the balls to tackle Steely Dan’s “Peg,” I love that STP not only covered “Wichita Lineman” but covered it with the maestro himself singing lead (and, clearly, as the video shows, putting them through their paces musically). They do a lovely, restrained, refined, respectful take on it that’s all the more impressive for feeling genuinely laid back. As I’ve argued about them a couple times before, in considering what kind of hole Scott Weiland left in rock music, and in that band specifically, the DeLeos (and their cohorts) are clearly at the mercy, not necessarily in a bad way, of the quality of their frontmen. Here, they’re working, if only for a moment, with the best of the best, and it shows.
FEBRUARY–SAMMY DAVIS JR.
As I documented a few years ago, I became obsessed with the Sammy Davis Jr. live concert album The Sounds of ’66 after Brian brought home a copy of the CD and pressed it into my hands. I’d never thought much about Davis one way or another (well, despite being horrified after watching the original Ocean’s Eleven a number of years ago that they made him drive a fucking garbage truck while the rest of the guys were cavorting in the casino). But after living with that album for a while, I completely fell in love, convinced that he was indeed one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And I was of course delighted to discover that he’d covered “Wichita Lineman.”
His proper album recording appears on 1970’s Something for Everyone, and I found two different pieces of footage of him performing it–one on Dean Martin’s show and one on his own show, Sammy and Company. The Dean Martin Show version is maybe a little cheesy; it’s just Davis performing solo with a mic and a tambourine to a canned track. To my eyes, he fares much better on his own show when, like on The Sounds of ’66, he can lean into the support of a full backing band.
Unlike when Glen Campbell sings “Wichita Lineman” with his illusion of plainspoken subtlety (which is of course devilishly hard to actually pull off), Davis goes in the opposite direction. His delivery is HUGE, all characteristic razzle dazzle, with only a loose fidelity to the lyrics and melody. Which, I think, is a brilliant way to honor the song, by not being at all precious about it.
Contemporary covers of “Wichita Lineman” (which I’ll of course write more about below) tend to be overly reverent, similar to the gaggle of painfully earnest covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that were proliferating for a while there in the late ’90s/early 2000s. But Davis, as the consummate showman, knows that he’s the attraction here, that the song, no matter how masterfully composed, is supporting him. Which allows different, often unnoticed aspects of the song’s brilliance to be brought to the fore–like a certain funkiness in the signature instrumental riff, the bigness of that soaring melody line, and a twist in some of the phrasing that actually turns the song from melancholic and wistful to full of pride.
I mean, yes, obviously, it’s bombastic and over the top, but that’s what makes it so awesome–having the confidence to not only go all out, but having the chops (and then some) to make it cook.
Keith Urban seems like he’s having more fun being Keith Urban than should be strictly legal. I’ve always thought he’s just a straight-up terrific guitar player, and I confess I even have a soft spot for his cologne, “Phoenix.”
In this live cover of “Wichita Lineman,” he starts off perilously close to frat-boy singalong territory, but then quickly elevates it with a combination of his fleet strumming patterns, his winningly earnest singing, and the fact that he does a measure or two of Glen Campbell’s baritone guitar solo in a funny little bit of neener-neener vocalizing (which even cracks him up).
A couple years ago, my boyfriend and I were going through a box of my dad’s old 45s, and we came across Jose Feliciano’s absolutely incredible version of “Light My Fire.” My dad, evidently a pretty big fan, had also been known to play Feliciano’s album Steppin’ Out around the house and in the car in the early ’90s, so I have lots of fond memories of his music. So, I was naturally delighted to come across his instrumental cover of “Wichita Lineman” (even though I wish he’d sung on it as well–I would have loved to hear his soaring tenor hit that “still on the liiiiiine…!”).
Having grown up playing piano, I think I’ll always consider the guitar somewhat magical, and Feliciano is nothing short of a wizard. His dexterity and fluidity with the instrument makes it seem like he can pull more music out of those six strings than should be physically possible, especially given that it’s all acoustic, without the benefit of amps or effects pedals or anything like that. I love the gentle, flamenco-style introduction, but it’s his run getting into the solo around 1:36 that really makes my heart leap out of my chest. Casually rendered mastery at its smoothest.
Rita Wilson is apparently living my dream life.* (*Please note, however, that being married to Tom Hanks does not constitute any part of anything I ever dream about.) Not only is she a successful actress and producer, she also released an album called AM/FM in 2012 that’s full of super groovy and singable stuff like “Never My Love” and “Cherish” (someone’s a fan of the Association) and, yes, “Wichita Lineman.”
I totally understand the temptation to do an incredibly reverent version of this song. It just feels at this point like a secular American hymn. But the plinky piano and drippy strings on her recording unfortunately sound like they were flown in from a late-’80s Narada recording session. Her vocals are the saving grace here, though; they are, for the most part, simple and heartfelt. The one thing I do especially love about her take is that she sings the first line without alteration–“I am a lineman for the county”–rather than trying to fidget around with “I am a linewoman” or some equally unnecessary gender pivot.
JUNE–SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS
One of the sort of implicit concerns I’ve been curious about examining with this covers series is the question of identity. The identity of a song, the identity of a band or singer. How do they interact? Does one dominate the other? When and how does the hallmark of an identity become a blessing, or a curse, to any given performance? To whom does it matter, and why?
The Scud Mountain Boys’ cover of “Wichita Lineman” is a case where the identity of the song itself wins out, but in a way that just seems genuinely humble without being overly reverent.
I think it would be easy to listen to a group of guys playing ultra low-key like this and gripe that they’re not really “doing” anything. Especially given that, like, who even knows who the Scud Mountain Boys are? Isn’t the goal of a band to announce, as loudly and specifically as possible, “here I am! Here is how I am different from all the other bands!”? (Ahem, the Scuds are referenced most often these days in discussions of Joe Pernice’s career as a singer and songwriter, which is a polite way of saying that unless you were frequenting the club circuit in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early to mid ’90s, there’s little chance you’ve probably heard of or cared about them. And yes, I myself only know about them via being a fan of The Pernice Brothers’ album Overcome By Happiness.) I mean, I’m the kind of person who raves about the “labyrinthine complexity” of King Crimson, so, like, I totally admit to having a tendency to privilege flash and pizzazz, to crave the unmistakable.
But really, there’s no reason for this particular version of this particular song to be anything fancy. The Scuds were smart enough to realize here that they could best serve the piece not by trying to reinvent it, but just by presenting it, which takes a certain level of confidence and maturity that not every musician or band has. It’s a risk, but, to my ears, it paid off.
JULY–THE TERRY FELUS TRIO
In continuing to reflect deeply on my dad’s musicianship, I figured this would be the perfect time to bust out his cover of “Wichita Lineman” (which is the second song in a Glen Campbell medley, after “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).
Personnel-wise, I’m fairly certain that this is not actually the version of the Terry Felus Trio that I grew up with. It’s my dad on Cordovox, I can tell that much, but I have no idea who the singer or drummer are. Throughout my childhood, the drummer and primary vocalist for the group was Don Graves, and though it might be him on drums, it’s definitely not his voice. (For reference, check out Donny’s incredible tenor on their version of the great Bee Gees tune “How Deep Is Your Love?” recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1982.) Whoever it is, though, does a great, simple but soulful take on it. The thing that really cracks me up here, though, is my dad’s immediately identifiable playing style. He would only have been 24 at the time this was recorded, but those jazzy chord stabs and the mini glissandos would remain a consistent part of his instrumental voice for the rest of his life.
And though as the years went on he played the Cordovox less and less, moving on to regular piano/keyboards and even just regular accordion, that sound will always be synonymous with Terry Felus to me. About ten years ago, I was in Boston for a friend’s wedding, and the day before the ceremony, I had dinner at a raw food restaurant with another friend in the North End neighborhood of the city, where the rowdy Saint Anthony’s Feast street festival was in full swing. As we dodged drunken revelers in the narrow streets, snaking our way through the festivities to get to the restaurant in time for our reservation, we happened to walk past a small stage where someone was actually playing a Cordovox. I hadn’t heard one in years at that point, and tears instantly sprang to my eyes. The sound of the thing was so familiar and so specific, and I was so grateful to be reminded of how singularly my dad utilized it in his work for so many of my, and his, formative years. You’ll hear it in full flower on “Wichita Lineman” here, in all its perfect, loungy goofiness and beauty.
I often get flummoxed when I hear people talk about, say, redecorating their house, and they insist that, because the blue paint they picked for the walls dried exactly two shades darker than they were expecting, the whole job is now ruined. I’m always like, “wow, where does that level of specificity come from and why does it matter?” Until, of course, I remember that my own similarly microscopic gradations of taste manifest themselves musically rather than visually. Like, I love dance music…but only when it has enough bass. New Wave and Synth Britannia stuff? No thanks! Brian will often playfully test my taste-o-meter in this genre, pulling up early ’80s English pop obscurities on YouTube until I realize what he’s doing and will start shouting, “ugh, no! It’s too bleepy bloopy!!” Similarly, I have very specific rules about the kind of reggae that I prefer to listen to–late-career Bob Marley is out (too preachy and weirdly stiff); early Bob Marley is awesome (Catch a Fire, yessss); but the totally demented King Tubby dub stuff is the very best of all (“Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber,” anyone??).
I’m not sure what flavor of reggae I was expecting when I found a recording of Dennis Brown singing “Wichita Lineman,” but I was pleasantly surprised to find how low-key and straight-ahead it is (at least until the solo; more on which momentarily).
Dennis Brown’s name is likely best known to most of us hipsters of a certain age as the nominal subject of the Mountain Goats’ “Song for Dennis Brown” from The Sunset Tree. But he’s also a straight-up musical hero in Jamaica. No less than Bob Marley said that Brown was his favorite singer, and it’s easy to hear why. His pipes are smoother than smooth, with a seemingly effortless panache. And if the dates I’m seeing online are accurate, he only would have been about 15 when he recorded this. (!!)
The tempo here is gloriously relaxed; if the song’s narrator is still on the line, he may end up being here for quite some time to come, so what’s the rush? The tempo, combined with the absurdly charismatic vocal, really pulls the song out of the realm of existential inquiry and reconfigures it as something more like a love song. Perhaps a love song to music itself? As the pop culture writer Matthew Perpetua once said about Huey Lewis, “If any other band in the world was playing this song it might make you cry, but Huey Lewis simply cannot sing without smiling. HE LOVES SINGING SO MUCH!!!!!” And it’s pretty much the same thing here. The song itself can be such a heartbreaker, but there’s nothing but joy in this particular vocal take.
And then there’s the guitar solo in the middle, where I suddenly remembered, oh yeah, these reggae guys were making all these crazy, inventive sounds with the most basic studio set-ups. I asked Brian what kind of effects pedal they would have been using to get a sound like that, and his response was basically “I have no idea.” Not because it’s necessarily complicated–today it would be easy to use a wah-wah to get that effect and call it a day. But in the very early ’70s, it would have been something unwieldy like an Echoplex, or some kind of panning effect in the mixing board itself. However it was generated, it’s pure ear candy, something fun and slightly off-kilter for no other reason but sheer delight. Glorious stuff.
SEPTEMBER–GUNS N’ ROSES
I know I haven’t written anything yet about Glen Campbell’s death, and I really think it’s because I kinda just can’t. I can’t wrap my head around how to process the enormity of his musical legacy, which is different than even the kind of cultural legacy left by, say, Bowie or Prince. But I love that apparently no such processing was necessary for Guns N’ Roses to cover “Wichita Lineman” as a tribute to Campbell at their August 30 show in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The fact that it’s not a particularly “good” or skillful cover, combined with the fact that they were sort of actively willing to alienate most of their audience, who most assuredly were not Glen Campbell fans (in the original footage of this I saw right after it was posted on YouTube, there was a woman who screamed, around the 1:55 mark, “I have no idea what this song is!”), to me, just means that they were really, sincerely committed to playing this song. I love that! It’s so pure.
Axl totally rushes through the first few lines of the verse, almost crashing and burning before the song had a chance to get into a groove. And even once they do manage to lock in, it all still seems incredibly tentative, like a group of middle school students who are just learning to play their instruments and are nervously stumbling through their debut performance at the talent show to the general indifference of the audience.
They are, though, of course, actually really good musicians, so Slash’s acoustic guitar flourishes kind of pull the whole thing together, as does the drummer when he really lays into the beat toward the end. And, how can you not love that big grin and shrug that Slash gives right after the final note rings out? I’ve made that exact same face on stage so many times over the years, that “maybe we pulled it off? Who knows?!” gesture of giving it your best shot, knowing it might have been a little shaky, but also knowing what’s done is done, no take-backs, and thank god it’s over.
“For Glen,” Axl says solemnly at the end. The sweet, plainspoken, vulnerable earnestness of it is actually in perfect keeping with the song’s spirit of dignified melancholy.
Sure, I saw them live once back in 2004, and Automatic for the People will always be a perfect album to listen to on a long drive in grey, cloudy weather, but I’ve never actually been the biggest fan of REM. I actually find them pretty boring most of the time! So I was all set to bag on their cover of “Wichita Lineman.”
Especially since they manage, somehow, to not play Jimmy Webb’s beautiful chord progressions accurately in a few key parts. But I couldn’t bring myself to be too hard on them, given that the recording is from ’94, when Michael Stipe was at the full height of his powers vocally. Ignore what the rest of the band is doing (OK, maybe give a little love to the nice and easy beat that Bill Berry lays down for it) and take a few moments to bask in Stipe’s weird, serpentine charisma and earnest, plaintive voice. That’s one of the main things I’ve discovered over the course of this year that makes the biggest difference to a successful cover of this song–the quality of the vocal. And of course that’s not always just about having a “good” voice. It’s more being willing to sing the song honestly and with a modicum of vulnerability. That was, like, Stipe’s whole deal, especially in that era of his career, which makes this a more than fine version of the song, despite the rest of its flaws.
For extra credit, compare it to Stipe’s performance of “Wichita Lineman” on New Year’s Eve 2011, sitting in at one of Patti Smith’s solo shows in New York City. The band is much stronger (and know how to actually play the damn song), but Stipe, without his youthful live-wire edge, slides into a technically proficient but much more emotionally distant, even smug, take on the melody. It’s actually the disappointment of this performance, despite the fact that it’s overall much smoother, that convinced me of the merits of the take from ’94.
This recording of Cassandra Wilson singing “Wichita Lineman” from her album Belly of the Sun was one of the first I found when I started researching different versions of this song.
First and foremost, my god, what a divine voice. There’s pleasure to be found in all kinds of different vocal styles, to be sure, but every once in a while, it just feels really good to let your ears be graced by the talents of someone with an exceptional command of their instrument. And that’s really the main selling point of this version, her utterly gorgeous deep alto range and subtly masterful phrasing and delivery. (Get your earbuds out if you wanna hear the smallest, loveliest intake of breath at about minute 2:59.)
The shimmery arrangement is pleasant enough (I nerded out a bit when I connected a few dots to discover that the guitarist, Marvin Sewell, has occasionally collaborated with one of my favorite drummers, Brian Blade). And I can kind of understand why she would do one of those jazz pivots where you change the shes to hes, although rewriting one of the most iconic first-lines-of-a-song in popular music history (to “my man’s a lineman for the county”) creates just enough of a speed bump that the song doesn’t 100% recover from the dissonance between your expectation and what you actually hear.
I very much wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for the change; I tried to hear it from a feminist/Shakespeare’s sister perspective, like, well, what does the character of this woman have to say about the guy who’s been out searching in the sun for another overload?? But, the lyric change alone doesn’t automatically turn it into a proper response song; it just kind of repeats everything the guy character already wants for himself in her voice. Which is…fine, it’s fine to love someone and want for them what they want for themselves. But then…why not just sing the lyric as written? Brian and I laugh a lot about lyrics where some rock dude is wailin’ about how he’s been working out at the docks or whatever, and we’re like, “sir, you’ve never worked the docks a day in your life.” Which is to say, suspension of disbelief is already such a big part of what it means to be a performer, and I sincerely don’t think at this point anyone is going to be confused to hear a woman singing the words “I am a lineman for the county.”
DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
The primary lesson I took away from listening to and thinking through this year’s worth of covers of “Wichita Lineman” is that the best way to tackle this song is with ruthless honesty. And I don’t necessarily mean to equate honesty with simplicity; I think Sammy Davis Jr.’s bombastic take is just as honest as Dennis Brown’s reggae smoothness, which is just as honest as the Scud Mountain Boys’ stripped-down approach. The best versions let the best of an artist’s truth shine through.
After how much fun Brian and I had at the end of 2016 recording our take on “I’m Waiting for the Man,” I knew I definitely wanted to close out this year with our own cover of “Wichita Lineman.” And of course, I came down with a terrible cold in late December, so all my convictions about honesty being the best approach were going to be put to the test, given that my voice is not in the best shape its ever been in. But hopefully the depth of our affection for this song comes through loud and clear.